«Bet on it: we will sing when we win.» Little stories of a big war

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Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv has launched the project of interviews with Ukrainians from different cities to share their feelings during this war. Here we publish them with the creators’ consent.

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The Ukrainian people is experiencing a moment of great change. Personal ambition takes a backseat to service. What was valuable to us turns to ashes in the blink of an eye; things that barely smoldered inside now burn with unstoppable force for the common good. A nation is being born, one that will never again settle for marginal compromise, but on the contrary, will carry its beliefs, its culture into a new world.

Honored Artist of Ukraine Natalia Rybka-Parkhomenko is an actress at the Les Kurbas Theater and a singer. Just a few weeks ago she was in the midst of cultural life, participating in a number of creative projects and plans. Today she has thrown herself into daily volunteer work. She is convinced that war cannot destroy dreams, but can only delay them. Her theater, once a place of culture, is now a wartime hostel, «Les Kurbastre» (as its employees call it among themselves), her native Kharkiv – a field of battle. We asked the artist about her current hopes and goals in a short interview, held as part of the «Little Stories of a Big War» project run by the Ukrainian Catholic University. This project intends to introduce hundreds of human destinies made stronger by the war, to the world. Having lost it all, these people grew in faith, and regained their true selves. Not one of them is a Marvel superhero. They are ordinary Ukrainians, of whom there are millions. They are not stuck waiting for victory; they are not fallen victim to panic; and they have not given up. They are simply doing what they can in the here and now, so they can better celebrate the victory of good over evil later along with the entire world.

– How did the actors’ and musicians’ lives change once the war began?

– These are fairly ascetic times. We understand that there isn’t much room for personal ambition. This is a time of transformation and looking for places to make ourselves useful. On February 26, two days after the outbreak of the full-scale invasion, we organized a war hostel at the Les Kurbas Theater in Lviv. Our entire staff is serving the people who come here. Some of them have no place to stay, some have nothing to eat, some don’t even have anywhere to go from here. Our entire team today have become volunteers and coordinators working with IDPs (internally displaced people). For us, this is a time of service, when you wake up in the morning knowing you have to go and help.

With the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Lesya Kurbas Theater in Ukraine became a military hostel, and its actors became volunteer coordinators

– What strikes you in these people’s stories? What helps you cope emotionally?

– I think this is a period of great inner work, of spirituality, a time that shows us what matters in life. Those who have spent years cultivating this inward spirit of humanity and professing the value of humanity, the value of the person, have a slightly easier time coping with all the material losses. But, in addition to our property, we are losing many lives, friends, near and dear – and this is very dramatic. Once the war ends, it will take us a long time to deal with this: some with a therapist, some on their own. But this will be a long process. Today, however, we have to rethink what is going on inside us, and personally come to terms with what is truly valuable.

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– How did you come to terms with that?

– My personal story is interesting in that I entered this time fairly organically. My trials, reasonably strong experiences, started three years ago in my private stories. And for a while now I’ve been dealing with aspects of pain, trauma; and trying to live them, deal with them, and accept them. When the war broke out, I had several panic attacks. This is the kind of instinctual fear, where you’re worried not that you will die even, but that you won’t be able to control yourself, for example, you won’t be able to behave appropriately with your little child.

– How do your children respond to these current events? What do you tell them about the war?

– Luckily, Lviv is a rear base. We are not facing the sort of desperate hardship that we can see in Kharkiv or Kyiv, where bombs are flying, and poor children are spending 10 to 11 days in bomb shelters. The only thing that’s changed for us is the frequent air raid sirens. We have taught the children to dress quickly, get their things, and go into the shelter. But, next to the horror that children from the combat zone are experiencing, our children are reasonably fine. My daughter is happy, and she’s in good spirits. She keeps in touch with her friends, and she spends time outdoors. She knows there’s a war going on. She knows some Muscovites have shown up about whom she knows nothing, but whom she already dislikes. So, for instance, when we take the elevator, she always looks in and says «I’m afraid to go in, what if there’s a Muscovite in there.» Or she peeks behind the curtains: «No Muscovites there?»

– Have your relatives evacuated from Kharkiv?

– Yes, thank God. My relatives are now in Lviv. But it was hell for me while they were in Kharkiv. I understood I was supposed to be here [in Lviv]. But waking up every morning fearing for your father and your father’s home – that’s intolerable. Directly before their departure, there were moments when I wouldn’t even ask «how are things in Kharkiv?» – because it was clear. On Viber, I would write «Roll call.» Dad would respond: «Alive,» or I would sneak peeks at Viber to see the last time he was online.

Natalia Rybka-Parkhomenko is an actress at the Les Kurbas Theater and a singer

– Do you have information about the condition of your favorite spots in Kharkiv?

– All of the really beautiful and important spots, most worth mentioning, are downtown. But all of these old buildings, this beautiful architecture, are ruins. I don’t know what is going on at the moment with my university in Chernyshevskhoho St., though I heard that area sustained heavy bombardment. The theaters are standing so far, thank God. My parents’ home, my childhood home in Pavlove Pole, is still intact. However, just yesterday I was talking to my dad, and we said that it’s good to be prepared to accept whatever happens, however terrible.

– Have any of your relatives moved abroad? What is your response to that?

– None of my relations have left Ukraine. They only moved from Kharkiv to Lviv. I have no intention of leaving either. I know that I am needed here today. Simply sitting abroad, all «deeply concerned» about the situation in Ukraine… I won’t be able to do that; nor would I be able to make myself useful there somehow. I’m convinced that as long as the situation in Lviv is more or less under control, I have to stay and help. We have a whole lot to do.

– How are you feeling now? Has anything changed for you internally over the period of the war?

– Currently, I’m feeling reasonably whole, strong. I’ve been endeavoring to know myself for a long time, and war has not unsettled me from that process. The only thing that surprised me was that something like this is even possible in 2022. Now I understand the extent to which my upbringing and worldview lacks a philosophy of war. As far back as January, when talks began of a possible attack, I sat there like a sage, thinking to myself: even if something were to happen, it’ll be something small, something like the [unrecognized separatist] Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic, it won’t have to do with us…

A few days before the war, maybe February 22, I was asked how I imagined war. And when I said I saw a ballistic missile or a plane dropping a bomb, I was told I was too old-fashioned – we’re not living in Hitler’s day. But on February 24, I understood we were all romantics, too naive, too carefree, and nonchalant. We did not imagine such horrors were still possible on planet Earth.

Today I’m feeling new inner resources. I never imagined I’d be so sincerely and generously prepared to lean into charity work. Being partially involved won’t do today, you can’t just start and stop. You can’t get out of it. We’ve agreed to this, and we have to show up day in, day out, we must help ceaselessly. But the paradox is that the more you give, the more comes back to you.

– How are your colleagues from the theater working at the moment?

– All of the people in my circles are working as volunteers right now. Some are here, some help the [army] boys get bulletproof vests, helmets, and thermal imagers. Some unload and reload humanitarian aid. We’re all working. Only thing is – I don’t know whether this is true for others – but we can’t sing right now, it just won’t come. There’s no time for singing. But I know we’ll sing once we win.

– What is a day in the life of the theater like now? Are there commonalities between an actor’s day and a volunteer’s day?

– Every morning when we show up, there’s a «shift change.» Some guests decide to move on, usually abroad, others look for possible accommodations. Not many stay beyond two or three days – although there are some, after all Lviv is oversaturated with IDPs, and these people have nowhere to go. At a certain point, we deliver lunch for people, then dinner. We talk to them a lot, and we talk to journalists a lot. We don’t let them leave the theater in the evening, we take care of security concerns, and we put everyone to sleep. Is a day like this similar to an actor’s day? Maybe, in that we’re busy morning until night. It’s just that right now the value of our performance, is life itself.

– How has your attitude towards Russians changed? Do you maintain contact with any?

– Although I am from Kharkiv, a border region, somehow I don’t have people in Russia. So there’s no interaction. But I believe that nation has its story ahead of it yet. They’ll go through their tribulations yes, no easier than what we’re going through now. Of course I do not wish war on anyone. But evolution does not pick, does not care how it will come about, and their evolution is still ahead of them, believe me.

– Are you feeling anger or hate?

– Honestly, yes. But an esoteric-minded friend of mine told me there were different qualities of anger: there is light anger, and there is hatred. So I choose the first. I am defending my land, I am in my own home, and I am not going to let anyone have it.

– What do you miss the most right now?

– Prior to the war I was really looking forward to spring. I would pick out dresses for myself. I love the season. Recently, I especially wanted to express my femininity, to be in harmony, to interact with my people. But now I feel it’s not the time. It is a time of service – asceticism and service. We have to go through this, which I’m doing.

– How do you imagine the first day of Ukraine’s victory?

– I don’t think it’ll be soon, but I keep the faith that it won’t take too long. When people ask me when will it be over, I pose a question mark. After all, it is unknown.

– How did the theater change in this time?

– We’re facing changes that are powerful, total, and very real. Recently we were talking about what we’ll put on once it’s all over. Because our everyday is so deep and dramatic, it’s hard to reach that level in theater. I said that perhaps after all this drama, once the big Ukranian sun shines for us, it would be good to sing, to recall the beauty of our songs, the beauty of our people, the richness of its heritage.

– What song is the first to come to mind?

– You know, all of the songs in the Kurbasy repertoire, all of them are about this. They’re all about identity, about wholeness, about the beauty of the people, even when they’re sad. This is our history, our value.

In conversation with Natalia Starepravo

Translator: Pavlo Hrytsak; proofreader: Shari Henning Garland

Republished from UCU project «Little stories of a Big War«

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